Monday, April 12, 2010

Stalking the Reader

I am always looking out for the unusual in my reading -- the unique, the different, the exciting -- all with a view to try and piece together the meaning of the reality I see around me. It is thanks to the viewpoint of others, through from their fiction, that sometimes I get to see beyond my own vista, and occasionally what appears as a parallax view, challenges my own world-view of reality. There is sometimes a cost getting into print, as in the case of John Kennedy Toole, or the flipside, Stephen Benatar, a writer who didn’t give up, nor battle to get his work into the hands of readers.

If you’ve never heard of this writer, then perhaps you’ve not been approached by him in a British bookstore, but fear not as Benatar is now crossing the Atlantic looking for readers as reported in The Sunday Times:
I first met Stephen Benatar in a Waterstone’s bookstore in north London. This well-dressed man in a fedora came up to me and said very softly: “Hello, I’m signing copies of my novel. Would you be so kind as to take a look?” And before I could say, “No, bugger off!”, he had slipped a copy of Wish Her Safe at Home into my hands and disappeared.

“Oh dear,” I thought, “another one of Brit-lit’s deluded losers!” I’ve met so many in my time — writers who have measured out their lives in rejection slips; writers who have written dozens of well-reviewed novels that sank without a trace. So I bought Benatar’s book much in the same spirit as I would buy a copy of The Big Issue: it was a pity purchase.

It just goes to show that you should never judge an author by their hat or their hustle. For, on reading his book, I quickly discovered that Benatar is not one of the deluded; he is one of the talented. He writes wonderfully about failed lives, missed opportunities and the seductive dreams of second chances. Benatar’s terrain, writes the academic Gillian Carey, is “the weird hinterland of ordinary life where eccentricity shades into the bizarre, battiness into delusion and dementia…”

Wish Her Safe at Home
is a gripping and haunting story about a middle-aged, genteel woman called Rachel Waring who inherits a Georgian house in Bristol and slowly goes mad. Professor John Carey, an esteemed reviewer for The Sunday Times, has called it a “masterpiece”. Carey tells me: “It really is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. Benatar manages to hit a raw nerve in the reader and make us uncomfortable by suggesting — very subtly — that Rachel, the mad narrator, is more like us than we would like to think.” Doris Lessing has praised it as “a most original and surprising novel”. And various celebrities — Emma Thompson, Joan Bakewell and Joanna Lumley (who showed interest in it for a possible starring vehicle) -- have declared themselves Benatar fans.


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